From instant noodles to microwavable mac and cheese, the so–called “struggle meal” is a hallmark of many a Penn student’s diet. Often juggling a never–ending stream of problem sets, SABSing obligations, and late–night Van Pelt study sessions, no one can blame the average teen or twentysomething for reaching for a ready–made option rather than breaking out the recipe book. And for the 5,500 or so undergraduates who call the College Houses their home, worn–down appliances and minimal storage space make cooking a meal from scratch all the more arduous.
Yet there are a select few students who remain undaunted, regularly assembling delectable homemade dishes in the dorms against all odds. For these amateur chefs, cooking is many things: an exercise in stress relief, a creative outlet, a bonding ritual—even an expression of love. They’ve mastered the art of the dorm–cooked meal, and they have plenty of tips and tricks to share with fellow Quakers on how to kiss the “struggle meal” goodbye.
Hailing from the 18th floor of Harrison College House, Elyse Kim (C ‘25) began her baking career at age 5. While other kindergarteners were busy heating up mini chocolate chip cookies under the incandescent light bulbs of their Easy Bake Ovens, Elyse was whipping up boxed cake and brownie mixes under the watchful eye of her mother. “I always thought that it was so fun!” Elyse says. “And those mixes are automatically delicious, so it was just building my confidence. It made me really proud of what I was creating.”
Elyse now spends most of her mornings bustling around her in–suite kitchen. While she admits to being an avid fan of dining hall fare, switching to a lower–swipe, lower–Dining Dollar meal plan this semester has inspired her to start making breakfast every day. From mushroom, green onion, and spinach omelets to spinach tortilla wraps, Elyse’s elaborate early–morning bites put typical convenience meals to shame. “I like to eat the rainbow, so I’ll eat really healthy stuff and try to make it really beautiful,” she says.
As for her favorite breakfast she’s made to date, Elyse beams while describing a dish that she made while at home over the summer. “My mom and I put sweet potato in the air fryer and got it all crisp, so it was like toast,” she recalls. “Then I put avocado and mushrooms and smoked salmon and then an egg, and fruit on the side. And it was so good. It’s definitely a special occasion breakfast.”
While her kitchen setup at home allows her to embrace her culinary creativity, Elyse acknowledges that Harrison’s facilities present a challenge to the amateur chef.
On the one hand, the lack of equipment has made Elyse much more aware of how many supplies are required to whip up her favorite recipes. “When you’re at your childhood home, your mom just has everything, so you don’t really think about what you need,” she explains.
But frustrations and a lack of prep space aside, Elyse emphasizes that the time spent in her shoebox kitchen is perhaps her favorite part of the day. A reprieve from the daily stresses of life as a college student, Elyse isn’t ready to give up her dorm–cooked meals anytime soon: “I personally think that the process of making your food and eating something that you created is just so special. Being able to start my day with that—I love it.”
And for those aspiring student chefs who are looking to follow in her footsteps, Elyse is eager to share some advice.
Her first recommendation: Know what you like, and get creative with it. “I started by just writing down all of my favorite ingredients … and thought about how I might be able to package this stuff,” she explains. “It’s a fun challenge to be able to think of new recipes.”
In terms of more practical tips, Elyse swears by the meal prep process. Grocery shopping, followed by an hour or so of chopping vegetables and measuring out ingredients, has become one of her Sunday rituals. For the student who’s always on the go, she highlights that meal prepping eases some of the time constraints that scare many of her peers away from the kitchen. “I have an 8:30, so I’m not trying to wake up earlier than I have to. I just throw the ingredients in the pan with the eggs and then I mix it up, and it’s done in like seven minutes,” she says.
Thirteen floors below lives Anika Prakash (C ‘23), a fellow Harrisonian also using cooking as a way to flex her creative muscles. “I just like experimenting with new recipes, and sometimes my friends and I will cook or eat together, or I’ll cook for them,” Anika says. “It’s just fun!”
Anika’s love for cooking was sparked later in life—a byproduct of pandemic–induced boredom and a slight social media addiction. “I got into cooking at the start of the pandemic because I was at home, and I had so much time. I kept getting these recipes that were really unique recipes on my Instagram and my TikTok, so I was like, ‘Okay, I want to start making these,’” she says.
Two years later, Anika has made it her mission to try new dishes as often as possible. Now fully immersed in the cooking side of TikTok, Anika has dozens of recipes saved to her phone and is slowly working her way through the list. “Once my algorithm started realizing that I was into cooking, I ended up getting tons and tons of new recipes,” she says.
One of her favorite meals that she’s made thus far has been a simple chickpea salad. Composed of mashed chickpeas, onions, peppers, vegetables, and spices, Anika’s chickpea salad is as easy to make as it is satisfying. “You put that on bread, and you have a solid, nutritious meal that also tastes good,” she says.
Now in her fourth year of living on campus, Anika is well aware of how lackluster the kitchen appliances in the College Houses can be. This semester, she notes that her in–suite oven has presented a particular challenge. “There’s a weird smell every time that you open the oven, and it’s just not a great oven either,” she laughs.
Still, she advises her peers not to be so easily disheartened by the difficulties inherent to preparing food in a dorm environment: “Even though the dorms are gross, it’s definitely not impossible to cook in them.”
To compensate for the far–from–luxurious amenities available in the dorms, Anika rattles off three must–have appliances for any student aspiring to start cooking for themselves more often: an air fryer, a kettle, and a toaster. “Especially when I’m cooking smaller things that don’t require a full, long tray or whatever, having [the air fryer] to heat or cook things is really helpful,” she says. “And then having the kettle for boiling things just helps save time, and the toaster for obvious reasons.”
Just across Locust Walk sits Rodin College House, home to roommates–turned–sous–chefs Jaymaba “Jay” Ndiaye (C ‘25), Anne–Christie Duvert (W ‘25), and Lisa Nnaji (W ‘25).
Coming from households that bonded over traditional recipes and shared meals at the dining room table, the threesome finds joy in making family–style dishes for each other here at Penn. “It’s a lot of work for one person to cook for everyone, so we’ve made [cooking together] into a social thing,” Lisa says.
Finding a time when their schedules align can be difficult, Jay notes. But when they do have free time on their calendars, they prefer to spend it in the kitchen together. “We usually cook together on the weekends when we all have time,” Jay says. “Last Saturday, we had all three meals together, and I was like, ‘This never happens!’ ... It’s fun when we have the time to do that every now and then because it’s something that we can’t do every day.”
When asked what their favorite dish to cook together is, Lisa is quick to name Jay’s Jamaican–style rasta pasta, calling it her “signature dish.”
“I mean, I’m not a one–trick pony!” Jay laughs, though she agrees that it is one of her most–loved recipes. “What I put in it is chicken breast, shrimp, sauteed bell peppers, onions. I use penne pasta, and I’ll put cream and cheese and spices and jerk seasoning in it so that it’s really flavorful,” she says.
Anne–Christie’s homemade banana bread also gets a shoutout from the group, with Lisa adding, “It goes crazy!” Jay gives a nod to Anne–Christie’s zucchini muffins as well, though she admits that she was initially wary of trying them. “I was expecting it to not have any type of sweetness,” she says. Yet Jay and Lisa were pleasantly surprised by their taste—a nod to Anne–Christie’s baking prowess.
In addition to bringing them closer, the roommates stress that embracing their chef–y sides has also given them more agency over their diets. “I feel like a big pro of being able to cook for myself this year is that I get to have a lot more variety in my food, and I can cook food the way that I want to eat it,” Anne–Christie says. “I like being able to customize my food and not always have to eat the same thing.”
As for their tips for fellow amateur chefs looking to take more control over what they eat, Jay recommends saving time by making a few basic dishes early in the week that can be kept as leftovers and incorporated into a variety of different meals in the following days. “You try to make two to three dishes that are versatile,” Jay explains, offering an example of a base of rice with multiple sauce options. “It prevents you from having to do something every single day. You get busy, life happens, and sometimes you don’t feel like cooking, so it’s nice to have something in your fridge.”
For Ayesha Patel (C ‘25), cooking is more than just a hobby—it’s a love language. From preparing her younger brother’s favorite pasta dish for family dinners to leaving fresh–baked cookies on her friends’ doorsteps before big exams, sharing her culinary creations with the people closest to her is one of Ayesha’s favorite pastimes.
“If I cook you food, that’s my sign that I love you and I want you to have a good day,” she says. “One of the things that I love most about cooking is being able to share it with my friends and my family.”
Ayesha moved into Harrison College House this fall, and she’s been putting her in–suite kitchen to good use ever since. “[Having the kitchen] is really nice because I can have that same sense of home–cooked food at school, especially because the dining halls don’t always give that same vibe,” she says.
As of late, Ayesha notes that cooking has also turned into a bonding activity for her and her suitemates. “I have two roommates that I hadn’t met before moving in,” she says. “My roommates and I will have what we call ‘roomie dinners,’ where I’ll cook up a big meal and we’ll all sit and eat dinner together. It’s been a really great way to get to know each other.”
Ayesha admits that making photo–worthy meals in the High Rises presents its fair share of challenges. She laughs as she describes how the four burners on her stove all have different strengths and how half of her desk has now become a dedicated meal–prepping area—a necessary sacrifice considering the lack of counter space available in the kitchen. “I use my desk in my room as my little place to chop vegetables and stuff and then bring it out to the kitchen when I’m done,” she explains. “It is a bit of a hassle.”
But slight inconveniences aside, Ayesha remains committed to the amateur chef grind—and she’s picked up a few hacks along the way.
Namely, she emphasizes the importance of cultivating a positive mindset in the kitchen. Rather than thinking of cooking as a tedious chore, Ayesha reframes the pastime as a well–deserved break from a mounting workload. “When I’m stressed about finals or club interviews or anything like that, [cooking is] what I’ll use as my study break or as my fun little activity before I get back to work,” she says. “It’s become a bit of a therapeutic activity for me.”
Whether they’re whipping up elevated avocado toasts or veggie–based sweet treats, Penn’s amateur chefs are making the most of what the College Houses and their cramped kitchens have to offer.
But these budding culinary experts are doing more than just dishing out Instagrammable bites. They’re making meaningful connections—with the roommates that share their shelf space, with the friends who are always willing to take leftover baked goods off their hands, with the family members whose recipes they’ve brought with them back to Philly, and even with themselves.
While the average Quaker might survive off of Class of 1920 Commons fare and customizable Wawa grilled cheeses, Penn’s amateur chefs are proving that fresh meals made from scratch aren’t as far out of reach as one might think. Whether you’re searching for a brief respite from a busy day, a way to connect with classmates and floormates, or even just a little taste of home, these chef–y students know that breaking out the pots and pans every once in a while could do us all some good.